Rodolfo Walsh’s Last Case by Elsa Drucaroff

Weary of US politics? How about a peek at the way other countries handle political disputes? Argentina, for example. In this historical “true crime” novel by Argentine novelist and literature professor Elsa Drucaroff, translated from the Spanish by Slava Faybysh, fact and fiction overlap, reinforce, and illuminate each other.

In real life, as in the novel, Rodolfo Walsh was a well-known Argentinian writer of detective fiction and an investigative journalist. His career started in the politically tumultuous 1950s and continued for the two succeeding decades. He joined a militant underground group, the Montoneros, allied with the Peronists (“Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”—that Peron family). The Montoneros appointed him their director of intelligence, and he was adept at ferreting out information to aid their cause. These activities and the militance of his daughter Maria Victoria (Vicki) made them regime targets. Walsh was eventually assassinated in 1977, the day after publishing his famously scathing Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta, criticizing its economic policies.

Drucaroff weaves her novel around these facts and a compelling “what if?” What if, using his skills as a writer of detective stories, Walsh investigated the disappearance of his 26-year-old daughter himself? She, along with four men, were involved in a shoot-out with army troops—tanks and helicopter included—but in Drucaroff’s story, he is tantalized by differing reports of the number of bodies removed from the building and whether the woman involved was still alive when she was taken away. He has to track down the facts.

You can see why Walsh might want to shift his interest away from the Montoneros, who are prone to lengthy debates on Marxist principles (I hadn’t heard the phrase “dialectical materialism” in, I don’t know, decades?), and engage in a little practical action.

There’s danger in the air, and Walsh and his key contacts go about their business in increasing peril. In politically fraught stories, peopled by spies and secret police, you can never be absolutely sure which side a character is on, and Drucaroff has some surprises in store.

Drucaroff writes in a particular style, providing limited visual description. To keep the story moving, she places greater reliance on the significance of interactions among characters and their dialog. And move it does. It’s written in short segments—sometimes only a page or two until the point of view changes. From the early political arguments, where the story stalls a bit, to its acceleration with her cinematic cutting back and forth, the pace soon hurtles toward its dramatic climax.

Not a must-read, but an interesting and memorable look at another corner of the world we hear relatively little about.

The Scarlet Letter

Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, brings to thrilling life the world premiere of Kate Hamill’s adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, directed by Shelley Butler, from February 9’s opening night through February 25th. In the hands of Hamill, Butler, and a superb cast, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s poignant story moves along with both speed and passion.

Hamill has made something of a cottage industry out of adapting classic works, becoming one of the country’s most-produced playwrights. While Hester Prynne has numerous feminist fans, and while Hester’s story set almost 400 years ago reverberates loudly today, Hamill has not written a polemic. Instead, her Scarlet Letter is a story of love and revenge, almost equally thwarted.

Hester Prynne (played by Amelia Pedlow), a member of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, is a presumed widow, her husband lost at sea for some two years. When she becomes pregnant, she’s accused of adultery, whipped, and must wear a scarlet A, always. Despite efforts to humiliate her, she remains a dignified, affectionate mother.

Resplendent and full of his authority, Governor Hibble (Triney Sandoval) cannot persuade Hester to say who baby Pearl’s father is. Hester’s husband (Kevin Isola) unexpectedly returns in the guise of a doctor and blackmails her to keep his true identity secret. He’s determined to discover the father, not out of love or loyalty, but a desire for control. Meanwhile, the town’s clergyman, Rev. Dimmesdale (Keshav Moodliar) sermonizes about guilt and sin. Addressing the theater audience as his congregation, Moodliar’s delivery is pitch-perfect, and his portrayal of the conscience-stricken Reverend inspires great sympathy.

The governor’s prunish wife, Goody Hibbins (Mary Bacon), is not sympathetic. She’s embittered by unsuccessful pregnancies, and claims Hester has bewitched her. We know, as Hawthorne did, what a dangerous accusation this is, only a few decades before the Salem witch trials. (One of the presiding judges was Hawthorne’s great-great grandfather, John Hathorne—the only one of the judges who never repented his actions.)

Most of the play takes place when Pearl is about four, and special mention must be made of the puppet that plays Pearl, animated and voiced by Nikki Calonge. As Hamill said about the decision to use a puppet, “In some ways a real child is too real. The magical thing about puppets is that they accomplish the real and the otherworldly.” Feisty, stubborn, uncharming Pearl seems determined to displease the Puritans, chanting, “I love sin! I love sin!” By clever staging, Calonge becomes Pearl’s shadow. You don’t forget she’s there, but it’s Pearl who shocks Goody Hibbins.

The admirable but minimalist sets work hand-in-hand with the sound design to move you quickly from scene to scene, town to country. A memorable production, beautifully presented!

Two River Theater in Red Bank, N.J., is easily reachable from NYC by New Jersey Transit. For tickets, call the box office at 732-345-1400 or visit the Box Office online.

On the Big Screen: The Boys in the Boat

The predictable uplift sports movie generally provide is one of the greatest sources of its appeal: big goal, lots of work, sacrifice, setbacks, and, in the end—triumph! And sometimes an inspiring musical score too, viz., Chariots of Fire, Rocky.

The Boys in the Boat follows this model almost too well (trailer). Written by Mark L. Smith and directed by George Clooney, it breaks no new ground as it presents the amazing struggle by an eight-man crew from the University of Washington to compete in the 1936 Olympics. You know, the one when American athlete Jesse Owens (Jyuddah Jaymes) won four gold medals and scorched Hitler’s hackles.

The ragtag crew, brought together in the heart of the Depression, was led by actor Callum Turner (playing Joe Rantz), with my favorite performance coming from the megaphoned coxswain, who calls the speed and spurs his crew on, played by Luke Slattery. The cinematography is beautiful, and there’s a stirring score by Alexandre Desplat.

Not only were the Huskies underdogs when pitted against the East Coast Ivy League rowing powerhouses, the boat Coach Ulbrickson (played by Joel Edgerton) chose to enter in the preliminaries wasn’t even his most experienced crew. It was his junior varsity boat. Noses were out of joint. But Ulbrickson saw in the hunger and desperation (and shoes with holes in them) a drive that might take them first over the finish line. Joe Rantz gets some extra motivation through informal “occupational therapy”—late-night sanding and painting—with the elderly boatbuilder, played by Peter Guinness, as they work on the new racing shell for the Huskies team.

The Boys in the Boat is a feel-good film and, as it’s based on a true story (told in a 2013 book by Daniel James Brown), you don’t feel like you’ve been manipulated into those good feelings. The scores below tell the story.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 57%; audiences 98%.

What’s Down There?

In the last few weeks, a Missouri man (described as a “YouTuber”) discovered the car and body of a man missing since 2013 in the waters of a Missouri pond. It reminded me of a New Yorker story last summer titled “Hidden Depths,” by author Rachel Monroe, who dived (sorry!) deep into this particular specialty in the true crime cold case genre—underwater crime-solving.

The story focuses on a group called Adventures with Purpose (AWP). These are volunteer salvage divers who search lakes and rivers for missing cars—sometimes long-missing, and sometimes with the drivers still in them—and share video of their results for a YouTube audience that numbers in the millions. (Yet another massive social trend I’ve completely missed.)

Jared Leisek of Oregon founded AWP in 2018 intending it to feature treasure-hunts, but found it hard to compete with other dive sites that had much bigger audiences. The next year he found two handguns in the water, and a light bulb went off. He could build a bigger audience by focusing on the cold cases and missing persons.

Once he solved the case of missing man Nathaniel Ashby (a video about the discovery has been viewed more than ten million times), AWP was deluged with requests from friends and family members of other missing people. Responses from local law enforcement cover the gamut. Some welcome the help they can’t afford and the resources (dive equipment, trained divers) they don’t have; other not so much. Cause-of-death also varies. Many of the cases are the result of accident or suicide, but some may be actual crimes.

Interestingly, Leisek told Monroe he hates the true-crime community. Perhaps because of its voyeuristic love of sensationalism can lead to excess. As Monroe said, the true-crime fandom has “a tendency to assume that the official story of a tragic death obscures a more horrific reality.”

(Naturally, in the “no secret is secret for long” in the social mediaverse, AWP is criticized on numerous fronts and long-ago accusations that the teenage Leisek raped his cousin emerged, which at least for a time resulted in lost viewership for his YouTube channel.)

The Missouri case was resolved through the work of independent investigator James Hinkle, a local videographer who has his own YouTube channel, Echo Divers. Although there’s room for abuses here, the families Monroe interviewed are grateful that their days of wondering can come to a close.

Photo by Aviv Perets

CIA veteran David McCloskey’s New Thriller: Moscow X

Two years ago, David McCloskey hit it big with his debut espionage novel, Damascus Station. Hordes of readers, intelligence professionals, and critics alike praised its realism and lively, timely plot. His new book, Moscow X, is even better, with more than one pundit calling him “The new John Le Carré.”

There’s no point in suggesting the plot in anything other than broad brush strokes because, in the tradition of the best spy fiction, what’s happening on the surface, the day-to-day events, are only a small part of the picture. And probably misleading too. I saw this story as essentially about the interplay of three women, all three well characterized, committed, and worth rooting for. But vastly different agendas.

Outspoken and profane Artemis Aphrodite Procter is back, heading a new CIA unit called Moscow X whose aim is to undermine the Russian Federation and—yes, McCloskey names names—Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Her unconventional approach to spycraft gives her a creative edge in this job and, naturally, keeps her skating on some pretty thin bureaucratic ice. Hortensia Fox is a CIA operative working at a London law firm that specializes in handling the assets of wealthy Russians. Calling herself Sia, she’s busily trolling for information and cultivating contacts. Anna Andreevna Agapova is a Russian FSB agent, member of a wealthy Russian family, and married to an even wealthier man she cannot stand, for good reason. The Agapova family is being systematically shut out of the government power structure and, as the story opens, a huge portion of its wealth is stolen at the behest of a Putin intimate. Anna and her father believe (or prefer to believe) this occurred outside Putin’s awareness, and they want their money back.

Procter, as much a fireball as ever, sees an opportunity for Sia to use this theft as an opening wedge that will lead to, well, who knows? Maybe getting the money back and maybe in a way that looks like a coup was in the works. If Putin hasn’t paid attention to the internecine warfare among his cronies, he cannot ignore an attempted coup. And would take dramatic, destabilizing action in response.

Procter’s team develops a rather charming ruse to get Anna and her husband, Vadim, in contact with the Western agents. Vadim and Anna live on a large horse farm outside Saint Petersburg. Sia offers a visit to an elegant Mexican horse farm, headed by Maximiliano Castillo—around Sia’s age and handsome—leaving out the critical detail that the farm has been a CIA front for decades. All Max and Sia need do is act like a couple and winkle their way into the Russians’ confidence, Anna’s at least, through the business of buying and selling and riding thoroughbreds. It becomes a clever cat-and-mouse game between Anna and Sia and your opinion of which is the cat and which the mouse will keep changing.

Difficulty piles onto difficulty. What makes this book such an exciting read is that, between the Russians’ impenetrable motivations and the Western agents’ complicated and shifting agendas, there is no end to the potential dangers Max and Sia and Anna face, with Procter wringing her hands back in Langley. Although all the characters’ actions make sense, according to their own visions of reality and self-interest, you nevertheless can’t predict what will happen when you turn the page. When your operative in a hostile country starts looking for a beam she can throw a noose over, you know the situation has reached a desperate point.

Oh, and did I mention it’s winter in Russia? Lots of snow. Snow everywhere. You can’t hide your tracks or your heat sig and, of course, those drones with their facial recognition technology are watching. When Max and Sia visit Anna, they know microphones and cameras are everywhere, even in the bedroom, so their being a couple has to seem real to those watchers—more challenging than it sounds.

McCloskey effectively evokes the paranoia and suspicion of the autocratic Russian state, in contrast to sunny San Cristobal. The author avoids most mention of the drug cartels, and you may wonder how the Castillo family keeps that brand of violence away from their barns and pastures, but so much bad stuff is going on—you’ll never miss it.

Order it here through my affiliate link.

Killers of the Flower Moon

You think three hours and 26 minutes makes for an awfully long movie? You’re right. Yet, Martin Scorsese’s true-crime epic, Killers of the Flower Moon, completely held my attention throughout (trailer). Even though I knew the story, because I’d read the fascinating book by David Grann that the movie is based on, still there were no saggy lulls. It is time well spent.

The New York Times calls it “An Unsettling Masterpiece,” which recounts the terrible outcomes of white men’s unrelenting, murderous greed when oil is quite unexpectedly discovered on the Oklahoma lands that had been considered so worthless they might as well be given to the Osage tribe.

If I had a complaint, it would be that there was too much attention to Robert DeNiro as the “King of the Osage Hills,” cattleman William Hale. (Hale even asks people to call him “King.”) He gives an excellent performance, but, unlike the other characters, he doesn’t change; he’s the same throughout—a malicious, manipulative, avaricious local operator—and you understand him from the beginning.

Leonardo DiCaprio sets aside any vanity and is neither handsome nor savvy in playing Ernest Burkhart, Hale’s nephew. Because the tribe members are deemed incompetent to manage their assets, they are required to have white guardians. A quick way for a white man to become a guardian is to marry an Osage woman, just as Burkhart marries Mollie Kyle, memorably played by Lily Gladstone. Then if the wife dies . . . you can guess the rest.

Thanks to the oil, in the early 1920s, Osage members were the per capita richest people in the world. Much too tempting a target for undereducated, unprincipled roughnecks. Believe me, you’re grateful when Jesse Pelmons as Tom White, an agent of J.Edgar Hoover’s nascent FBI, appears on the scene.

The movie was filmed on a grand scale in Oklahoma, though there are plenty of intimate, emotion-packed moments in which Mollie and Ernest demonstrate real love for each other. Her penetrating gaze recognizes Hale and Burkhart’s schemes, but loves her husband anyway.

The film is dedicated to Robbie Robertson, whose last project was composing its music.

At the beginning, there is what seems an unnecessary statement by Scorsese about why he made this movie. That opening fits when he gives its closing words as well, bookending the film during a creative approach to telling “what happened next.”

The ill-treatment of indigenous people was one of America’s two greatest original sins and, in the arc of history, this sorry episode was not so very long ago.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 85%.

A Man for All Seasons

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s production of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, directed by Paul Mullins, opened October 21 and runs through November 5, 2023. The story of Sir Thomas More, a man who not only has principles but sticks to them, seems a timely offering for our more elastic era. Of course, you may conclude that, in his case, that virtue went too far. Here a strong cast and excellent production provide much to consider.

Hewing closely to history, More (played by Thomas Michael Hammond) has become the Chancellor of England during the reign of Henry VIII (Roger Clark). Henry is determined to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon. He has several reasons for this, but the most powerful may be that she has failed to produce a male heir. (Centuries later, science would prove that a child’s sex is determined by the father. Henry should have been looking in the mirror.) The Catholic Church, of course, opposes the divorce, and Spanish officialdom, represented by its emissary Sigñor Chapuys (Edward Furst), regularly pleads Catherine’s cause. More’s conscience won’t let him support the King’s plans, despite the loyalty he demonstrates by various other actions. Nor does he speak out against them.

The principal cast includes several additional notable characters, which the cast plays with great skill and gusto: the always a bit dodgy Duke of Norfolk (Anthony Marble), More’s devoted wife Alice (Mary Stillwaggon Stewart), his daughter Margaret (Brianna Martinez) and her fiancé William Roper (Ty Lane), whose political views shift with every wind. Also, rising politician Richard Rich (Aaron McDaniel) demonstrates his convincing slipperiness, Thomas Cromwell is less admirable here than in Wolf Hall (James McMenamin), and “The Common Man,” (Kevin Isola). Isola makes the most of the array of often-comic characters he plays—More’s servant Matthew, a boatman, a publican, a juror, a jailer. His every appearance is welcome. Additional cast and production credits in my review at TheFrontRowCenter.

In general, a readiness to compromise or to achieve the King’s desired ends by whatever argument necessary characterizes Rich, Norfolk, and Cromwell, in direct contrast to More. The play challenges you to think about the role of a counselor. Is it solely to follow the leader’s dicta or is it to help a leader onto a more conciliatory and constructive path? For all his staunch refusals to speak out on the era’s great questions—the divorce and the establishment of the Church of England with the King at its head—More does have opinions about these matters. He simply believes his silence will protect him from accusations of treason. In my view, he’s splitting legal hairs too.

STNJ productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online.

The Epilogue of August

The Epilogue of August, the captivating debut crime mystery by Jennifer Milder, unwraps the title character’s secrets like a succession of nesting boxes. It demonstrates the truth William Faulkner captured when he said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Janus is a middle-aged woman living in Brooklyn when she receives a phone call she’s awaited for years. Her mother, August, is dying in the oceanfront town of Seaville, North Carolina. Bad timing, of course. The Thanksgiving holiday looms. Janus has no desire or, initially, no intention to go to her prickly mother’s bedside, but there’s no one else. She goes. The competing pulls of duty and self-preservation are palpable here. In a way, it’s curiosity that wins out.

The name Janus (mostly called Jan in the book) is a perfect choice for the main character. Looking backward and gradually revealing the layers of her mother’s and her own lives—eventually, even her grandmother’s—and looking ahead to her mother’s death is exactly what occupies Jan in this novel.

Jan has indelible, unhappy memories of her chaotic early years living with her single mom in camps and communes. August has painful memories too, especially of the murder of a pair of sisters that took place in the town one long-ago summer. Nelson McCready, a young Black man, was tried and acquitted of one of the killings and never brought to trial for the other. Because technically the case is still open, he can’t leave, sentenced to live in a community where everyone believes him guilty.

As August’s fragile health declines, Jan seeks out friends from her own past and that of her mother and grandmother. You may anticipate a few of her discoveries, but author Milder has significant twists in store. To Jan, the journey she’s on is personal, but as her mother’s story is gradually revealed, she comes closer and closer to uncovering the secrets behind the long-ago murders.

All told, this is a complex, layered portrait of mother and daughter, and even though family dramas are not usually my cup of tea, here the characters are completely, heart-breakingly believable. Coupled with an accomplished writing style, that realism makes the story immersive and deeply engaging. The story packs in so much, it’s hard to believe that the present-day action takes place over the course of only about a week.

The book appears to be self-published, and a commercial publisher might have suggested different formatting choices. Some readers may be put off by the book’s 579 pages, but that number is misleading. The way the pages are laid out there are fewer words per page than in a conventional book and, trust me, it moves along rapidly. This is a truly remarkable debut, and I look forward to more from this author.

On Screen: Oppenheimer

J. Robert Oppenheimer had close connections with Princeton, including his acquaintanceship with Albert Einstein and his tenure as head of the Institute for Advanced Study (one of the four colleges then in this New Jersey town). Our local nonprofit movie theater was able to arrange a U.S. premiere last Thursday, the day before the film’s general release. The Garden Theater produced a classy event—food, wine, free popcorn!—and attendance was enthusiastic.

But it was the movie itself, directed by Christopher Nolan, that made an indelible impression on me. Three hours long, and not a minute wasted. The music and some of the visuals, especially in the beginning, suggested how the young Oppenheimer grappled with the mysterious principles of theoretical physics and quantum mechanics, the energy of the stars, and the movement of atoms. And their implications. He became the person who pulled all these ideas (and conflicting scientists’ egos) together to create the atomic bomb. When the Manhattan Project began, the United States was already four years behind German development of atomic weapons. While there were Americans who questioned whether the United States should deploy such a destructive weapon, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Hitler wouldn’t hesitate.

Oppenheimer believed his role was to develop the weapon; it was up to the politicians when, where—and if—it should be used. Then politics threatened to undo him. The 1954 closed-door hearing in which his security clearance hung in the balance jeopardized his career. Physics was a field with too many secrets, and his government wanted to know whether he could be trusted with them. The brutal questioning and testimony at that hearing is intercut with testimony in another hearing—the Senate confirmation debate on Lewis Strauss’s nomination to be Secretary of Commerce. As chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Strauss had become an Oppenheimer’s implacable enemy, because of the scientist’s qualms about developing the hydrogen bomb and remarks Strauss perceived as insults. The movie contains some astonishing quotes, and, apparently all are accurate.

While these may sound like dry bureaucratic proceedings, director Christopher Nolan has created a movie of incredible tension. Irish actor Cillian Murphy, as Oppenheimer, and Robert Downey, Jr., as Strauss, are formidable antagonists. The cast is further strengthened by the performances of Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Kenneth Branagh, Josh Hartnett, and Rami Malek, among many others.

The story is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. The production team had only three months of preparation, and the film was shot in just 57 days. I see it as a testament to the value of being focused, whereas films whose creation sprawls over many months lose their edge. The powerful result speaks for itself.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 94%; audiences: 94%.

On Stage: And A Nightingale Sang . . .

A business trip to Las Vegas kept me from attending the opening weekend of The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s new production, And A Nightingale Sang . . ., but I didn’t want to go without mentioning it to friends in the area, and encourage you to see it. A not-very-often produced play by Scottish playwright C.P.Taylor, it’s on stage for only one more week (through Sunday, July 30). Taylor was a native of Newcastle upon Tyne, and his characters speak with the broad Geordie dialect that must have been a bear for the actors to master (which they did!). This accent will be familiar to viewers of the television mystery series, Vera.

And a Nightingale Sang . . .the story of a northern England family during the Blitz and how, as one character says, Hitler changed their lives. There are lots of funny moments and sad ones too. The actors, particularly Monette Magrath whose role involves breaking the fourth wall and helping the audience understand how the pieces fit, do a remarkable job keeping up. Something—often more than one thing—is always happening.

Older sister Helen (played by Monette) believes she’s plain until she meets the friend (Benjamin Eakeley) of younger sister Joyce’s (Sarah Deaver) fiancé, Eric (Christian Frost). The men are in the army, training for battle, and the play’s six scenes take place at pivotal points in the war. The mother (Marion Adler) is religious—to a fault you might say—and her husband (John Little) distracts himself with playing the piano, including the title song, and politics. The grandfather (Sam Tsoutsouvas) always weighs in where he’s not wanted.

Retiring Shakespeare Theatre artistic Director Bonnie Monte chose this play for the aptness of its moment “as I read about what the Ukrainians are dealing with on a daily basis,” she says. Big world events affect individual people and families in a personal and private way.

Mention must be made of the set design by Brittany Vasta, economical in space for the small stage, but with multiple areas to hold the disparate action and suggestions of the war’s destruction. The lighting (Matthew E. Adelson) and sound (Drew Sensue-Weinstein) designs effectively evoked the terror as planes overhead drop their bombs nearer and nearer. Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, contact the Box Office.